Until now, proponents of commercial drone use have been hampered by a handful of pesky Federal Aviation Administration regulations. You’ve got to fly your unmanned aerial vehicle during daylight hours. You’ve got to keep your craft within your line of sight. And, perhaps most annoyingly, you aren’t allowed to fly over crowds of people. For those of us yearning for drone-delivered burritos, it’s quite a drag.
The Trump administration has heard the cries—or at least the cries of commercial drone proponents like Alphabet and Amazon. On Wednesday, President Trump signed an executive order that establishes a new government-monitored pilot program so companies can bolster their drone delivery testing efforts here in the U.S.
Detailed in a presidential memorandum, the new program is designed to “promote continued technological innovation and to ensure the global leadership of the United States in this emerging industry,” which it refers to as unmanned aerial systems.
“A coordinated effort between the private sector and among [state, local, and tribal] governments will provide certainty and stability to UAS owners and operators, maximize the benefits of UAS technologies for the public, and mitigate risks to public safety and security,” the memo states. The UAS Integration Pilot Program will commence sometime in the next 90 days. Within 180 days of its launch, the goal is to have at least five partners on board.
Under this program, at least a small number of companies will be able to test their efforts in earnest on their home turf. (Steven Miller, a drone law expert in San Francisco, told the San Francisco Chronicle that the FAA granted CNN its first waiver for flying drones over crowds. CNN plans to use a lightweight drone that breaks apart if it crash-lands.)
The order satisfies a need: Drone adoption and development are booming, but due to FAA limitations, it’s been difficult for companies to cash in on the potential financial benefits of commercial drone usage. Last December, according to Recode, the FAA had issued around 200 waivers for commercial drone flights in the U.S. Since then, that number has skyrocketed to more than 1,300. But numerous companies, including Amazon, have taken to testing their drone efforts in other countries, such as the U.K., where authorities have been more amenable to bending their own UAS rules.
But there are still a lot of questions around UAS logistics and public safety.
I encounter drones on a semi-regular basis at bike races, as amateur enthusiasts try to capture unique photo and video. Operators mostly abide by drone-flying regulations, but on at least one occasion, things have gone awry. At a Northern California race in May, a drone flying above a peloton of racers struck a tree, crashing into the pack and sending one rider flying over his handlebars. (The drone operator owned up to his faux pas, and offered to purchase a new bike for the injured racer.) That same month, a drone crashed into spectators at a San Diego Padres baseball game. These instances illustrate the dangers of drone flight over crowds: An aggressive bird, a stray tree branch, a surprisingly strong gust of wind, or even a simple operator error could all derail a drone and send it crashing into the pedestrians, traffic, or personal property below.
Drone crashes have had more serious consequences as well. A drone crash this summer knocked out the power for 1,600 residents in Mountain View, California. Another drone collided with a U.S. Army helicopter over New York City last month—a situation that turned out OK, but could have been disastrous. There are numerous other instances of drone crashes that have informed FAA policy to date.
While the developments in drone technology are exciting, and companies are making a lot of progress, I have serious qualms about how drones can be used on a large scale, particularly in highly trafficked areas.
With the president’s proposed program, drone expansion sounds like it will happen slowly. But at some point, as commercial drone usage expands, drone delivery companies would be vying for airspace much like how delivery trucks, takeout drivers, and mailmen navigate our roadways. How will drones be able to navigate an obstacle-free path to their destination? Will the airspace 200 feet above our heads turn into a buzzing drone highway? What happens when a pigeon decides to dive bomb an inch front of a drone—will a drone pileup send a half-dozen flying vehicles plummeting down onto our heads?
The whole point of this new UAS program is to try to suss out these issues and determine solutions bit by bit. But there are too many moving parts for widespread drone delivery to ever take off. Perhaps this program will come to the same conclusion, and we can start to focus on more exciting drone applications.